Taxonomy and Conservation

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus) could gain additional protection if it was classified as a separate species

Last Sunday, I mentioned that taxonomy could directly impact the conservation status of a species.  That statement was based on personal observation but today, while browsing the latest issue of Biological Conservation, I found a great article surveying that very topic.  W.R. Morrison III and his colleagues surveyed recent taxonomic changes and gauged their impact on the conservation of the associated species.

They found that overall, changing taxonomic status didn’t influence conservation in any particular direction.  However, they did find trends on how different types of species and different types of changes affected conservation.

First, they found that some changes helped to promote conservation, particularly those changes that resulted in the splitting of a species.  On numerous occasions, when a species of limited geographic range gets split from a more widespread species, the new species receives an increase in conservation status and efforts.  On the reverse end, species that were lumped together generally received reduced conservation efforts and funding.

What is really interesting though, are the exceptions to those trends, when taxonomic changes had no impact on conservation efforts.  This typically occurred in charismatic species and species that have significant economic value.  The former is represented by the debated taxonomy of the Polar Bear and whether it is a separate species from the Brown Bear.  Regardless of its taxonomic status, the Polar Bear receives enormous amounts of attention and funding for conservation.  Additionally, when a species has economic value, as seen in numerous fish stocks like salmon and tuna, the species are valued whether as a single species or multiple.  Whatever the case, efforts are always dedicated to preserving the populations.

I find it interesting that ultimately, taxonomy doesn’t really impact the well known animals and plants but it is the lesser known species and subspecies that could potentially live or die by the efforts of taxonomists.

Source: Morrison III, W.R., et. al. “The impact of taxonomic change on conservation: Does it kill, can it save, or is it just irrelevant?” Biological Conservation 142.12 (2009): 3201-3206.

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